Airports look for federal aid to fingerprint workers

PHOTO/James MacPherson/AJOC
Officials for Alaska’s larger airports want federal money to purchase digital fingerprinting machines and perform criminal background checks on employees.

The Federal Aviation Administration in December required that all airport and airline employees with access to secured areas be checked out with the FBI. Across the United States, that decision will mean more than 750,000 employees at about 400 airports will need to be fingerprinted by the end of the year.

The state is asking for more than $1 million from the federal government to fund electronic fingerprinting equipment known as biometrics for 17 state-owned rural airports across the state, and for Anchorage and Fairbanks, said Frank Richards, a maintenance engineer with the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities in Juneau.

The city-owned airport in Juneau will have to pursue its own funding for electronic fingerprinting machines, Richards said.

Joette Storm, an FAA spokeswoman in Anchorage, said it’s unclear whether the federal government will reimburse airports that purchase digital fingerprinting machines because the new regulations only require that airport employees be fingerprinted, either electronically or by dactyloscopy, the 100-year-old process of rolling fingers in ink and impressing them onto coated cards.

Richards said it’s impractical to expect airports to gather fingerprints from the old ink-transfer method since it takes several weeks to get results versus only hours if fingerprints are taken electronically.

Airport officials across the United States hope the digital fingerprinting machines will be funded either through a new government-imposed $2.50 passenger surcharge on airplane tickets or through airport improvement funds, traditionally used for construction upgrades.

Officials at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport have purchased two electronic fingerprint machines to get a jump on the year-end deadline. The machines arrived in early January, and officials are checking out some 8,000 airport employees, according to Terri Tibbe, airport security manager.

The two machines, manufactured by Identix Inc. of Los Gatos, Calif., cost the airport $73,000, Tibbe said.

Airports in San Francisco, Orlando and Washington, D.C., use machines manufactured by the same company.

It takes just a few minutes to record someone’s fingerprints and send them off to the FBI, which will send the results back in anywhere from a few hours to a few days, Tibbe said.

"This definitely is an increased measure in security, but it’s not the end-all," Tibbe said.

Tibbe said most airline and government employees working at the airport have their fingerprints on file with the FBI, but they have to be fingerprinted again under the new regulations.

One in 10 Anchorage residents are employed by an airport-related business, and Tibbe suspects there may be someone who is wanted for a crime and may show up on the FBI’s files. No one has quit because of the background checks, and Tibbe suspects the new regulations may prohibit people with outstanding criminal histories from applying for jobs.

Chuck Grandy, chief of safety at the Fairbanks International Airport, said an electronic fingerprinting machine should be in use at the airport by the middle of January.

Grandy said about 800 people who work at the airport will have to be fingerprinted, a process that should be completed by the end of summer, well before the FAA’s deadline.

"I think we can process four people an hour fairly easily," Grandy said.

Damon Wright, Identix Inc.’s director of investor and public relations, said his company’s digital fingerprint machines are not new to Alaska.

"A number of police forces there use them," Wright said.

Like many biometric companies, Identix’s stock rose sharply after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The company’s stock was trading at less than $4 before the attacks and soared as high as $15 in the months following. The stock was valued at about $12 on Jan. 11.

01/21/2002 - 8:00pm